Note: My last blog post highlighted three benefits of field-based learning: enhanced connections among people, personal growth facilitation, and curiosity stimulation. Franz Plangger from the Outdoor Council of Canada observed that the first two benefits focus on personal development. So he asked if the literature supports the idea that outdoor / experiential education is beneficial for curricular achievement, content acquisition, and “passing the exam”. Thanks for asking, Franz!
Administrators ask : do you teach in the field because it is more FUN or because your students LEARN more?
The best answer is “both”. While some learning outcomes are better suited to experiential education than others (i.e., memorizing multiplication tables vs. learning to identify trees), well-designed field courses can be created for almost any academic topic. Even if your administration wants you to “teach to the test” you can do that in a field setting. If you start with clear, concise content-driven learning outcomes, design a course that inspires students’ curiosity about the subject matter, and engages them with the material in an authentic, meaningful way, your students will learn more in the field than they do in the classroom.
Field courses require active student-centered teaching, which works better than traditional teaching.
Traditional teaching methods, such as lecturing, reading textbooks, and working through problem sets, are typically used in distraction-free learning environments such as classrooms, libraries, and lecture halls. The outdoors is not a distraction-free learning environment. Experienced field instructors know that students can listen to a lecture for 10-15 minutes before the physical environment becomes too distracting (e.g., mosquitoes, weather, wildlife) for them to pay attention. Therefore, the most practical and effective way to keep students engaged in the field is through active learning. It works best to get them moving around, asking questions, talking with one another, and exploring their environment. This redefines “distractions” into “curiosities” that the students can focus on and learn about.
Field instructors simultaneously use multiple teaching methods, such as active, problem-based, and experiential learning, to keep students engaged in the field. However, educational researchers typically test one teaching strategy at a time. For example, one section of a class learns with the methodology in question and students in the adjacent classroom serve as a control group. Research that uses this reductionist approach allows us to highlight individual benefits of field teaching methods, but certainly misses emergent and synergistic benefits such as increased enjoyment, confidence, and improved relationships. Student-centered learning is not only more fun for students; the educational literature suggests that it is more effective than traditional methods.
This gets us to the question: can field courses “teach to the test”? Presumably when your administrator asks this, she is talking about the high stakes standardized tests that have become routine in K-12 education. Multiple sources support the idea that standardized tests “measure lower order knowledge and skills (e.g., recall and comprehension) as opposed to higher order thinking (e.g., analysis, synthesis, evaluation).” Perhaps your administrator is suggesting that field courses focus on higher order thinking skills at the expense of lower order skills – and thus compromise test results. However, a comparison of 12th grade government classes that used traditional techniques and experiential education methodologies (e.g., student-directed learning, real-world connections, critical reflection) found that students in the experiential education rich classroom performed the SAME as students in a traditional classroom on lower order thinking skills but BETTER than the control students on higher order thinking skills (Ives and Obenchain 2006). This suggests that you can promote higher order thinking on field courses without sacrificing the skills needed to “pass the test”.
Finally, field courses provide opportunities for students to learn in many different ways throughout the course of a day, which teaches to different learning styles. For example, students start the day by working together to count the number of invasive weeds near the campsite [collaborative learning is consistently more effective than individualized learning]. Then, students meet with a noxious weed expert, listen to a short presentation about invasive plants in the region, and ask follow up questions to learn how they can help manage the invasion [students in an active learning classroom scored approximately twice as well on physics tests than traditional students]. Next, they work together with the guest speaker to design a strategy for weed removal [problem-based learning increases student engagement, but not necessarily test scores] and spend an hour pulling weeds [service learning can improve standardized test scores]. After dinner students are asked to reflect on their personal opinion of non-native plants and whether they believe “weeds” should be managed or left in place [critical self-reflection allows students to process their experience and synthesize new information]. This progression allows students to build an understanding of a real-world issue that impacts the field area where they are living and studying.
Field instructors need to use a wide variety of student-centered teaching methods to keep their students engaged in the field. These teaching methods combined with a stimulus-rich learning environment, provide numerous opportunities for students to become curious and involved in learning. Once students are interested, educators can facilitate active learning about real world issues. The educational research supports the idea that these three methods (student-centered learning, student engagement, and active learning) increase student learning over traditional methods, so we can logically conclude that students learn more on field-based courses than in the classroom.
Partial List of References
Teaching in the field takes more staff time, funding, logistical support, and energy than teaching in the classroom, but field courses also have more educational power than classroom-based courses. Experienced educators know that novelty is one way to make learning fun and “sticky”, so leaving a traditional classroom, where students know what to expect, and heading into the field, where anything could happen, increases the chances of facilitating a transformative educational experience. In the simplest of terms, field-based education has more power than traditional education for three reasons:
1. Field-based learning allows for meaningful connections among humans.
There is something about a group of humans traveling for an extended period of time that evokes our primal social instincts. People in modern cultures live increasingly isolated lives, even though we are “connected” through online social networks and cell phones. Modern humans in developed countries spend nearly five hours per day on their cell phones. Much of that time is spent texting, selfie-ing, and interacting with other people but without the human contact, which can leave us feeling isolated.
When you take student into the field, they leave behind Starbucks and Chipotle, Verizon and AT&T, Snapchat and Facebook. They complain at first because they are terrified of being disconnected, but after the classic symptoms of withdrawal are gone they start to engage with one another. For young students who have grown addicted mobile technology and older professionals who have experienced the out-of-control feeling of runaway email, this technology break may be the first one they have had in years. In the presence of skilled facilitators who help cultivate a supportive learning environment, students can make some of the most meaningful friendships of their lives in just a few days in the field. Field-based programs can encourage these human connections by creating a safe learning space, facilitating discussion and reflection, and gently pushing students out of their comfort zones.
2. Field-based learning eases us out of our comfort zones.
Modern people have an unprecedented ability to hide behind an image. People have always hidden behind carefully coiffed hair, stylish dress, and expensive shoes, but now we can Photoshop our image and post a carefully curated version of ourselves – and our lives – on social media. When we take students in the field, especially into the wilderness, we ask them to leave part of their image behind by leaving their styling products, town clothes, and wifi access at home. Asking student to away from their images is the first step away from their comfort zones, asking them to live in community for several days is another step, and asking them to take intellectual, emotional, social, and physical risks is yet another.
I’ve seen teenage students have breakthrough moments on field-based courses during which they realize who they really are and what they really care about because they finally had a chance to look. What’s even more amazing than realizing who they really are realizing that they like themselves – and the other students like them for who they are. The experience is transformative. Field-based learning pushes students just outside their comfort zones so they can see the world with fresh, new eyes. They become curious. They start to wonder. They begin to learn – about the world and about themselves.
3. Field-based learning brings out our innate human curiosity.
When students step out of their comfort zones and into a supportive learning community, they are able to get in touch with their innate curiosity. Students can engage with the subject they are studying in the first person, rather than having their experience filtered through a textbook or PowerPoint presentation, which provides a richer learning experience. Especially on extended wilderness trips, students’ lives slow down. They start to see the stars. They wonder about the names of bugs and plants. They notice patterns and details, which can prompt questions they couldn’t conceive of in the classroom. They feel the presence of the other humans around them. They have meaningful conversations. They have transformative learning experiences, which is what we set out to do in the first place.
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